Directors: Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky
Starring: Melissa Leo, Keith Leonard, Victoria Chestnut, Dave Clark, Michael Halstead
There’s a familiar saying that even a broken clock is right twice a day, which Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky’s assertively minimalist “Francine” recalls. An emotionally impressionistic story of a recently paroled woman coping with life on the outside of prison, this character study feels like a less successful riff on Kelly Reichardt’s much more evocative “Wendy and Lucy” — caught up in its own metaphor, its blank canvas and broadly sketched melancholic tones an empty vessel for those who would like to automatically turn the personal into the political.
There isn’t much in the way of plot to “Francine.” Oscar nominee Melissa Leo stars in the title role, as a woman who leaves prison and tries to re-acclimate to life in a downtrodden lakeside town. Though awkward around pretty much all humans (she frequently doesn’t respond at all in conversation), Francine comes to life through animals. She gets a couple odd jobs at a pet store and then a veterinarian, taking in felines and other animals until her house begins to resemble an episode of TLC’s hit new show “Crazy Old Cat Lady.” Boozy interactions with other societal fringe-dwellers then ensue.
It’s not that “Francine” feels phony, necessarily — it just feels tripped up and smitten with the notion that in saying so little it’s actually saying a lot. Francine is fairly realistic emotionally stunted character, and Leo inhabits her with a deadpan commitment and complete lack of vanity — and not just because of a scene in which she exits the prison shower. There’s just not enough latent intrigue or outside force upon Francine, and the movie’s elliptical psychological explorations feel half-sketched rather than arty.
“Francine”‘s no-frills, somewhat grubby production value and handheld cinematography are in lockstep with its austere narrative inclinations, and give the movie an undeniable intimacy. Laurie Collyer’s “Sherrybaby,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, or the aforementioned Reichardt film, starring Michelle Williams, though, are better examples of depressive American marginalia. “Francine” feels like a photocopy.
Written by: Brent Simon